Hazelwood Exhibit

"I Lived, We Live, What Did We Miss?" - Giving a voice to a community who has lost and persevered.

Duration: 12 weeks

Partners: CMU design seniors

My Role: Community Researcher, Social Design, Content Writer, Exhibit Design




This senior capstone project was a collaboration between the senior design class at CMU and members of the Hazelwood community in Pittsburgh. We worked with Center of Life (COL), a church within Hazelwood, to understand how the loss of young people has affected the members of this community that was once a place of opportunity and economic boom. As a team of 32 designers, we actively listened and discussed the impact of urban violence, race, power, poverty, privilege, and change. Through the interactions with this community, we built an exhibit that helps them remember those who were lost, celebrate those who live, and exhume the aspirations for the future of Hazelwood.



Besides contributing to the discussions and decisions on my team, I interviewed community members, wrote the content for the different champion descriptions and recipe cards (which I'll discuss later), created research artifacts, prototyped (collaboratively with my teammates) iterations of our exhibit ideas, and helped build our team's part of the final exhibit.

See, Listen, and Understand


Walking through the neighborhood, I saw the remnants of its past, vacant lots, and signs of rebuilding for the future. When the steel mills were active, 38,000 people lived in Hazelwood. There were bowling allies, a YMCA, theaters, a school, 17 hair salons, and many more businesses in the area. When the steelmill closed in 1997, the displaced workers couldn't all find jobs within Hazelwood, and moved out in masses. Hazelwood now has just 5,000 people. The decline in population caused businesses to fail and schools to close. Without these vital places for community building, gangs formed (some that last for generations) and violence has since taken so many young lives in the neighborhood.

However, the media too often defines Hazelwood by its drug dealings and violence, but those who still live in the community are very friendly. The negative perception prevents people from visiting and bringing traffic to support the businesses that are still there. However, there's hope - organizations like the Hazelwood Initiative, the Greater Hazelwood Community Collaborative, and the Center of Life are helping community members buy and keep homes in the neighborhood, create jobs via efforts like the Community Kitchen, and match peoples' skills with jobs available in the area.


Through listening to the experiences and memories of the people in Hazelwood, we gathered a more holistic view of the past and the present. We heard strong mothers talk about the loss of one or more of their children. We were told how everyone in Hazelwood is connected to each other somehow – either by blood or marriage. People told stories of a time when cops walked around the community, protecting kids and knowing people by name, instead of driving by in their cars as strangers. People used to chat on their porches, watch out for the kids, and know everyone else in the area. They talked about how it’s important for companies that profit from this community to also invest in it by hiring locals. Too often an outside source comes in to build what the community doesn't need. (ie. The Pittsburgh Penguins built a dek hockey rink in Hazelwood for good publicity, where it sits unused.) There's an Uber self-driving car test track in Hazelwood... but not a grocery store. These stories allowed us to build empathy and trust as we listened with open ears and without judgement.


There’s too much death these days. We used to fight and 2 days later you’re friends again. Somebody might be missing a tooth or have a black eye. Now, people just bam bam. - Carol

If people who grew up here aren’t able to stay here, it’s no longer Hazelwood. - Tim


When a loved one dies, even the smallest moments or most mundane items are cherished on a different level. They become the evidence of the love and life that once existed, the memories, and what could have been. We asked community members to show us some of these valued objects and to talk about the loss they've experienced through more formal interviews. From these objects, we more deeply understood how everyone heals differently, but the suffering is universal. It was important and empowering to have people share their perspectives, and have their voice be heard within and beyond Hazelwood. Despite the tragedies, we witnessed that many still live on with big dreams for the future. From creating music, to starting restaurants, to mentoring kids, people in the community continue to build for the next generation. The video clips from the interviews were stitched together and on display as part of the exhibit.

Sensemaking, Ideating, and Iterating


From articles about Hazelwood and our personal visits, as a group of 8, our team talked about and categorized the discovered stakeholders. The categories of businesses, individuals, media, foundations / community groups, schools, and government were separated into pie slices, with the center of the circle being the “strongest ties” to Hazelwood. (ie. Uber is not as strong of a tie as Tim is to Hazelwood) It’s evident that there are plenty of local groups in the community that can have a positive impact on Hazelwood. However, they need money from the surrounding slices: businesses (which there are few of), individuals (who in the area don’t have a lot of wealth), and the government. Thus, a lot of the dependency falls on the sparse government aid. The media is able to bring in more businesses and people, but the infrastructure/draw-points must already exist to attract the media in the first place! Without resources, it’s difficult to build better schools, which then makes it difficult for the people out of the local schools to get higher paying jobs or get into college.


We started generating ideas for exhibit pieces that would help tell the stories that we heard and remember those who were lost. From the initial braindstorming session, we chose 3 ideas to present back to the greater class for a power-dotting exercise.

Despite our colorless clothing choices, the ideas that were shared were vibrant and powerful. We discussed the sentiment expressed by community members that "Hazelwood is my Home", and reframed the exhibit as parts of a home, each serving a different purpose: the Bedroom, the Attic, the Kitchen, the Living room, the Porch, and the Mailbox. We grouped the standout ideas into these new categories, and iterated on them. I chose to be a part of the 'Kitchen' team.



A private part of the home where people often grieve. ie. framed photos of loved ones, clothes that belonged to someone lost.


Where artifacts from the past are stored. ie. valuable items that mean a lot, but currently aren't used.


Where people share aspirations. ie. dinnertime conversations, creative drawings handing on the fridge, cooking together with family, and sharing goals for the day or dreams for the future.


Where families talk about current events and larger societal issues. ie. watching the news, discussing important and serious topics.


Where families can interact with others in the neighborhood. ie. porch conversations, watching out for kids playing.


The method by which people in a home can communicate beyond the neighborhood. ie. outreach, writing to a loved one.

Iterating our 'Kitchen Space'

Our overall concept for the 'Kitchen' was to tell the inspirational stories that we heard from community members in a way that empowers other to act on their own passions. We wanted people to know about the hope and strength in their neighborhood. Despite the loss, poverty, violence or social injustice they faced, the community champions we heard from persevered and helped themselves and the community. We were able to interview just a few of the many champions within Hazelwood.



In our space we wanted people to 1. hear from community champions how they achieved their goals, 2. take the time to reflect on, write down, and share their own aspirations, and 3. stand back to witness the incredible wall of dreams of the people in Hazelwood. Our part of the exhibit was more interactive due to the hopeful and actionable nature of the kitchen, and we wanted the exhibit to grow and change with the people.

We prototyped and got feedback from community members throughout the process to make sure that our ideas were meaningful, impactful, and simple enough to want to do. (We iterated on our 3 components simultaneously to make sure they were cohesive.)

We told these stories in the form of "recipe cards" for success. The idea came from interviewing one of the community members Kim. After losing her brother Rai, Kim decided to stand up a restaurant at the location where they always talked about. We cooked with her, visited her restaurant, saw her recipe book, and interviewed her to understand how she did it. We were inspired by how through it all, she went after her dreams and didn't let anything stop her.

Each champion's story is deconstructed into actionable steps for the reader. The final illustrations on the cards were done by the visual designers while I helped define what they should be, and continued to refine the content.

The final recipe cards:

We thematically chose to extract Kim's story on a wall in our space. She's a strong mother that has lost a loved one, and yet opened a restaurant that benefits people in Hazelwood.

Final Exhibit

There is no good reason to bury a child. There is no justification for why this unnatural act has become normal in Hazelwood. Here, we recognize the countless individuals who have left the pain of saying goodbye to loved ones whose lives were cut short by street violence. Their stories of loss encourage us to share our own, and through this exchange, we take part in something bigger than ourselves. We become a community empowered by our vulnerability, strengthened from our compassion, and engaged with the issues that matter to us. This exhibit describes the journey of Hazelwood and asks us how we have arrived to a world with such systemic loss. We question the larger forces in our society, as we strive to find peace in our personal histories. We look for opportunities for positive change, and recognize the power of this community many people call home: Hazelwood.

Together We Remember

There are times when it is difficult to remember the loss of our loved ones because the pain is too great. However, when we can voice our grief to others, suddenly we are no longer alone. The countless individual stories of young lives cut short in Hazelwood build a larger narrative of urban street violence. Coming together over this shared experience creates a system for support and healing.

This is the "Bedroom" space, which memorializes those who were lost to gun violence. This is where people can leave mementos of their lost loved ones. Viewers can listen to the loss and memories or community members, while reflecting on their own grief.

Spaces We Shared

A community cannot grow without spaces to call its own. Although Hazelwood used to be a thriving neighborhood, it lost countless resources like schools, grocery stores, and jobs when the steel mills closed. Neighborhood treasures like ice cream shops and community swimming pools are now fading memories. By looking at artifacts from Hazelwood’s past, we reflect on what this neighborhood used to be.

This is the "Attic" space, which displays objects from the past that have contributed to the current state of Hazelwood. The rich history and memories are presented via recovered artifacts, photos, stories, and articles.

Aspirations We Hold

The people of Hazelwood are living and breathing stories of inspiration and resilience. From Olympic medalists to entrepreneurs, the community is filled with champions of hard work and talent. However, amongst these bright stars are also quieter voices whose stories of compassion and determination remain untold.

This is the "Kitchen" space, which celebrates the achievements of community members, empowers people to discover and act on their goals, and displays the wide array of goals from within Hazelwood.

Systems We See

As Americans, we are promised the rights of freedom, justice, and equality. But how are these rights fulfilled if communities struggle to put food on the table and keep their children safe? Battling systemic issues like poverty, racial inequality, and urban violence starts with open eyes and honest conversations.

This is the "Living room" space where viewers see how promises made by the United States are not fulfilled in Hazelwood. On each side, one line from the preamble of the constitution is engraved on the table. From that angle the viewer can read and compare news clippings and hazelwood member's quotes on the topic.

United We Will

Hazelwood is a beautiful mosaic made up of unique individuals who each play a role in the community. Whether they are artists, activists, leaders, role models, or supporters, these people all share the desire to contribute to something bigger than themselves. Through the years, Hazelwood’s strength has rested on its ability to come together in difficult times.

This is the "Porch" space, where individual strengths written down by visitors all contribute to a greater whole. As the piece gets filled, the messages of the community become clearer.


Some photos shown taken by Dylan Vitone.

Project Documentary

Video produced by Jillian Nelson


For Those Lost To Violence, Hazelwood Exhibit Celebrates The Futures That Could Have Been - NPR Pittsburgh


New Sanctuary at Center of Life Honors Hazelwood's Loved, Lost - Pittsburgh Post Gazette


“What Did We Miss?” Designing a Voice for Grief - Pittsburgh Magazine


Powerful Memorial to Young Lives Lost - The Post Gazette


Capstone Design Project Explores Evolution of Pittsburgh Community - Carnegie Mellon University


I didn't realize how much the project would affect me as a designer and as an individual. As I make my way through the tech industry, I'll always look back at Hazelwood as one of my favorite projects. Ultimately, I learned so much about what design could be - putting aside the typical UX artifacts, this experience allowed me to explore design in a more personal way. Design can bring positive change to the world one community at a time. All you have to do is listen with humility, have those difficult and necessary conversations, break out of your comfort zone, open up to those who do the same in return, and work together towards the change they need. The unknown presents unlimited opportunities for insight and growth, and this project opened me up to how much I have yet to learn. I was deeply moved and inspired by the words and lives of the community members that I interacted with, and hope to gain even just a piece of the strength they have. Lastly, throughout the project I learned so much from the insightful thoughts presented by my classmates and professors. It was incredible to see how far we've come after 4 years; to witness such a high level of sophistication in everyone's design thinking and craft was enlightening and humbling.